New study says something deeper than the simple truth that hard physical labour is…well, hard


Women building a road in Myanmar last year. Photo: Etan J. Tal. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

New findings on lower healthy life expectancy for workers in physically demanding jobs are out today (May 12) and they have serious implications for European governments seeking to raise retirement age.

The large long-term study of Danish workers in hundreds of different types of jobs is published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, one of the British Medical Journal’s 70 specialist journals.

The findings are stark: Physically demanding jobs are linked to shorter working lives, more sick leave and unemployment than white-collar jobs. In essence, workers in construction, cleaning, manufacturing and manual labour, such as carpentry, masonry, painting and plumbing could be expected to have fewer years of working, will need more sick leave and face longer periods of unemployment.

At the age of 30, the study found, a man in a physically demanding job could be expected to have a working life that would last almost 32 years, compared to nearly 34 years for men with physically undemanding jobs. Among women, the equivalent figures were just over 29.5 years and nearly 33 years, respectively. A 30-year-old woman in a physically demanding job would also take 11 more months of sick leave and suffer 16 more months of unemployment than a woman in a non-physically demanding role. The equivalent figures for a man would be 12 and 8 more months respectively.

The findings say something much deeper than the simple truth that hard physical labour is…well, hard, and that it takes its toll.

We already know, from the UK government-funded 2017 Skills and Employment Survey, that insecure jobs often have unhealthy features. These include sever psychological and physical strain.

The new Danish study shows that healthy life expectancy isn’t necessarily increasing at the same rate as life expectancy even in a rich and secure country and that physical labour does affect muscle strength and the ability to work as one ages.

As many have found in this pandemic era, with cleaning help locked down just as much as everyone else, physical work is enormously challenging.

It takes a particular level of grit  to to work for decades with your hands or on your feet, without much job security, a proper pension, (without healthcare in the US) and sans any real chance of upward mobility.

The new study shows the good sense of California, for instance, which has created a universal public pension programme to ensure that cleaners don’t literally work themselves to death.